Mainstream public discourse around sexual consent usually begins only after a reported sexual assault when emotions are raw and personal triggers are set to go off. While these discussions are important, as the stakes are high for many of us who intimately relate to coercive situations, this is not always a conducive time for nuance. Our discussions of sexual consent need to go beyond technicalities, legalese, and our lowest common denominator measure of humanity where the focus lies squarely on the presence or absence of violence rather than on the presence or absence of mutual enthusiasm and respect. Sexual violence and coercion does need to be continually checked and called out, but this is just an attempt at treating the symptoms of a disease that has already set in. Let's focus on preventative care, too!
If we are lucky enough to have any sort of sex ed in school at all, the focus is usually exclusively on baby making and STD/STI prevention. Inherently, although perhaps indirectly, this covers penis pleasure as it is required to the extent of producing ejaculate. The analogous sexual organ—the clitoris—is never mentioned, missing from diagrams, ignored. Because at least 70-80 percent of women require direct clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm, I would say this is a grievous skew away from an entire gender's sexual pleasure. Couple this with the persistent societal messaging of "men want it all the time" and "women just put up with it", the role of pleasure in women's sexual lives is negated. Without this expectation or acknowledgement of pleasure, the dynamic of sexual consent may be skewed or confusing. There are many reasons one would consent to sex other than pleasure, however, if the role of mutual pleasure were emphasized as at least one of the basic components of sex, young people would not be regularly thrust into a dichotomy of the one who desires versus the one who is the object of desire. With a dynamic like that, consent may sometimes simply look like a passive form of permission rather than an enthusiastic "hell yeah!"
That said, many people do take pleasure in being the object of desire, who are okay being enthusiastically into certain kinds of sex while just going along with other kinds of sex (consensually), and at the same time may still not want to have sex with you or I! That's okay! The ability to say "no" is what gives the "yes" meaning. It may be difficult to not experience this as rejection, but to get past this feeling of vulnerability, we need to acknowledge that it isn't about us but about the other person's boundaries, and this, in fact, can be very liberating. If my lover feels comfortable saying "no" to a, b, & c, I can be more certain that if they say "yes" to x, y, or z, they pretty much mean it. What this does is free me up to ask for some pretty far out wild things knowing that they if they say "yes", it's a crazy mutual yes!
In the workshop—The Art of Accepting No—sex coaches Monique Darling and Reid Mihalko discussed the compassion and mindfulness practice of experiencing a person's "no" as their human act of taking care of themselves the way they need to. In response, we thank them for taking care of themselves. They acknowledge that successive and repeated no's can be hard on our self esteems, but the key is to keep the joyfulness in the asking...similar to the joy a child feels rolling down the playground on their tricycle asking other kids if they want to get on until they find someone who does!
Furthermore, our own ability to say "no" can be a gift for these very same reasons. First, it can be reassuring to our partners that we are capable of clearly expressing our desires and preferences. After all, if we can never say "no", can we really ever say "yes"? Secondly, they may be offering something up out of obligation anyway, and it would save all parties involved a lot of grief. Really!
If you feel uncomfortable saying or hearing "no", you can practice. At the workshop we simply turned to the person next to us and took turns saying "no" to the things our neighbor was asking of us. Honestly, I couldn't say "no" to the half hour scalp massage I was offered, but you get the idea.